Tuesday, April 09, 2013

English Vinglish

Raja Sen thinks Sridevi excels in her comeback film.

In India, our post-Colonial hangover includes a peculiar English-language elitism, where those even halfway in control of the language thumb their nose at those unable to speak it.

Where folk routinely, and with unforgivable curtness, cut folk off mid-sentence to snappily correct pronunciation. Which is why a scene in Gauri Shinde's new film -- where a simple Maharashtrian woman is castigated by her family for calling jazz "jhaaz" (even as they proudly call it "jhazz" themselves) -- rings so true.

They don't intentionally mean to humiliate the woman with their constant use of English, but appear befuddled by her lack of what they imagine to be the most basic of linguistic skills.

Shashi, the devastatingly unassuming heroine of English Vinglish, is a homemaker and crafter of much-adored laddoos, a fledgling entrepreneur doing what she does because its the only thing she's applauded for. Not knowing English, however, cripples her at nearly every turn, till the fact that she can't speak the language becomes her not-so-secret shame, not unlike Kate Winslet's illiteracy in The Reader. And here's the thing: Sridevi does far better.

It helps, of course, that the script services her at every turn. Shinde, making her directorial debut, concentrates not on the overarching drama or the narrative arc, but instead labours hard on creating a heroine so flawless, so grounded, so perfectly lovely that we can't help but be swayed by her. She is a heroine so exaggeratedly Good that she, contrasted against her cartoonishly callous family, appears a superwoman.

This could very well have been another case of script servicing star except, as said, the star really did deserve a script this slavish.

Sridevi's been away nearly fifteen years, and Hindi cinema has changed significantly, a fact perhaps most amusingly encapsulated by the way the actress gasps in this film on seeing a couple kiss in a coffee shop, something unimaginable (on-screen, anyway) in her time.

Yet here she is, better than ever. Yes, ever. English Vinglish sees the veteran heroine trade in glamour for primness and chiffon for cotton, and reining in her wondrously exaggerated acting instincts: even her inimitably shaky-shrill voice works here as a facet of her character's fragility, her constant insecurity.

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